Tulane Medical Center - July 17, 2020

You may not feel quite right after some time in the hot sun, but could it really be an emergency? Depending on your symptoms, yes! Even on days when the sun doesn’t feel that strong it’s possible to get a bad sunburn, heat exhaustion or heatstroke.

Remember to take precautions and watch out for symptoms that you’ve been in the sun or heat too long. Here are some tips to know when it’s time to head to the emergency room for a heat-related illness.

Severe Sunburn

Your average sunburn is not going to be bad enough to send you to the emergency room. But it is possible to be burned badly enough by the sun to require ER attention. Head to the emergency room if you have:

  • Severe pain
  • Blisters covering a large area of the skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Signs of heat exhaustion or heatstroke (more on these to come)

It will take a day or two for the redness from mild sunburn to go away and a week to 10 days for blistering. Keep an eye on blisters as they are healing for signs of infection, which might also need ER care.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is when your body gets too hot, which can happen even if you’ve stayed covered and in the shade. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Dark urine or other signs of dehydration
  • Headache
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Nausea (but no vomiting)

Most of the time, you can treat heat exhaustion on your own by getting someplace cool, resting and drinking plenty of fluids (avoid high sugar, alcoholic or caffeinated drinks). But if you stop sweating at all, start vomiting or other symptoms worsen, you might have heat stroke, which requires ER attention.

Heat Stroke: Symptoms

Heat stroke has nothing to do with actual stroke but it is a life-threatening condition that needs emergency care. It happens when your body can no longer regulate its body temperature—it’s gotten so overheated that it is no longer able to cool itself. If left untreated, it can lead to seizures, unconsciousness and organ failure.

The biggest sign of heat stroke is that you are not sweating when you should be. Your skin is hot and dry to the touch and you may feel dizzy or confused. Cramps, nausea and vomiting are also common and you may have difficulty breathing. If you suspect heat stroke, you should always call 9-1-1.

Heat Stroke: First Aid

If you or anyone you know appears to have heat stroke, seconds matter. First, call 9-1-1 to make sure emergency help is on the way. Then offer the following first aid while you wait for help to arrive:

  • Take the person someplace cool – like an air-conditioned building or a cool, shady spot
  • Remove any unnecessary clothing to help the body cool
  • Wet the skin with water and then fan air over the person
  • Apply ice packs to the armpits, groin, neck and back – areas with large blood vessels close to the surface of the skin
  • Let the person drink cool water or other non-alcoholic, caffeine-free drink if they are able

Sun & Heat Safety Tips

You can enjoy the sun and heat with a few basic precautions to avoid heat-related illness:

  • Wear sunscreen SPF 30 or greater and don’t forget to reapply
  • Wear loose, lightweight clothing and hats to protect from sun and heat
  • Stay in the shade when possible
  • Stay hydrated – that means drink before you are thirsty and stick to water or other non-alcoholic, caffeine-free, low-sugar beverages
  • Avoid being outside during the heat of the day (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Kansas City area)

If you are not sure whether your heat-related symptoms require medical attention, call our free nurse helpline at 1-800-386-9355. You can talk to a registered nurse 24 hours per day, 7 days a week—a free service of Tulane Medical Center.